Monday, October 31, 2022

Evolving of Our Second Most Popular Celebration From Samhain to Halloween

Shopping for Halloween decorations at the five and dime store in the 1950's.

Note—Our annual Halloween post.

Halloween traces its origin to the Celtic harvest festival Samhain.  It was one of the four festivals that fell between the Solstices and Equinoxes and which celebrated the natural turning of the seasons.  Samhain was particularly important because it was the gate in time to the death and starvation season of winter, as well a time to celebrate the recent harvest. 

This association with the death of winter also extended to the spirit world, which was considered to be closer to the mortal plane than at any other time of the year.  The Celtic priests—the Druids—marked the occasion with the lighting of bonfires and with gifts of food and drink for the spirits of the dead.  Some consider it also analogous to a New Years Celebration launching a new cycle of the seasons.  It was popularly celebrated by the peasantry long after the Druids passed and well into the Christian era.

Details of actual Druid practices are practically unknow but widely imagined as in this illustration of a supposed ritual at Stonehenge.

Too popular to squelch, as with many pagan observances Catholic Church co-opted the custom as All Saints Day on November 1.   In rural regions especially Samhain customs continued to be observed on the evening before the Holy Day—which came to be known as All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en in Scots.

Immigrants from the British Isles brought some of their customs with them to the New World, but Halloween does not seem to have been widely celebrated colonial America.  The Puritans spent a lot of time trying to squelch other pagan customs like the May Pole dances associated with the spring Celtic festival of Beltane, but for all of their obsession with witchcraft, usually associated with those who continued to keep the old pagan traditions, there is no evidence of suppressing Samhain or Halloween.

These types of colorful greeting cards from around the turn of the 20th Century were  evidence of the growing popularity of Halloween while helping to spread it and create many of the iconic images still associated with it.

In fact, there is little mention of Halloween in America until the second half of the 19th Century.  By the 1880’s and ‘90’s greeting card companies were printing colorful post cards featuring images of witches, black cats, skeletons, and pumpkin Jack o’ Lanterns—all of the classic images associated with Halloween.  Period photos from around the turn of the 20th Century show both adults and children in costumes, most commonly some variation of witch or ghost themes.   

A few scattered newspapers began reporting ritual begging on Halloween by masked youths accompanied by general hooliganism, threats, and acts of vandalism.  This was probably introduced by the wave of poor “country” Irish immigrants that began after the Potato Famine and continued through most of the rest of the century.  The ritual begging in costumes and general hooliganism more closely resembled rural Irish Wren DaySt. Stephen’s Day December 26—customs than those celebrated in either England or Scotland.

The scary Halloween scene from Meet Me in St. Louis illustrated both the street begging and hooliganism associate with it in the early 20th Century.

Rowdyism by boys and young men was reported in big cities and small towns alike and often included setting small bonfires of junk in roadways; tipping or stealing outhouses; pelting houses with eggs, rotten vegetables, or manure; letting horses and livestock loose from barns and pens; and sometimes blocking chimneys so that houses would fill with smoke.  Sometimes significant damage was done.  The Halloween scene in the classic MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis shows a rare screen glimpse at the rowdy shenanigans most Americans associated with the celebration.

As it spread, customs for observing the holiday varied regionally. Communities started to organize activities to keep the kids and hooligans off the streets, with mixed success.  Parties with games such as bobbing for apples and the telling of ghost stories were fairly common. 

Parties for children with wholesome games were a popular alternative to the hooliganism associated with Halloween but failed to stop it.

Animated films of the ‘20’s and ‘30’s such as Walt Disney’s 1929 Silly Symphony The Dancing Skeletons showed the popularity of the holiday and light-hearted images of death, witches, and black cats.  The Skeletons perhaps show a tip-o’-the-hat familiarity with the Mexican customs around The Day of the Dead which is celebrated on All Soul’s Day.

Walt Disney's 1929 Silly Symphony cartoon The Skeleton Dance  helped make them an enduring Halloween image.  It also borrowed heavily from Mexican Day of the Dead imagery.

The custom of trick or treating seems to have spread slowly.  It combined the ritual begging with toned-down tricks that were a little less extreme than the wild rampages reported earlier.  What progress it was making was largely interrupted by the Depression years when families had little extra money to spend on treats and by the sugar rationing of World War II.

Trick or treating was still far from universal until after World War II when it became a topic of popular radio programs like the Jack Benny Show and Ozzie and Harriet

Trick or Treating spread rapidly in the post-World War II years.

In 1947 the popular children’s magazine Jack and Jill published a story on the custom of Halloween begging and described it in detail, spreading the practice widely and with amazing uniformity.  By 1951 the practice was widespread enough that a Philadelphia woman, Mary Emma Allison and the Reverend Clyde Allison decided to channel the energy to constructive purposes by introducing Trick or Treat for UNICEF to support the work of the United Nations international children’s relief.

In the 1950's stores like Woolworths were one-stop Halloween shopping centers.  Inexpensive costumes, masks, and gear replaced homemade costumes and candy companies promoted their sweets for treats instead of homemade popcorn balls, cookies, and apples.

By the mid 1950’s with the strong support of the candy companies and the introduction of cheap masks and pajama style costumes for children, the practice of trick or treating had become ubiquitous and had even taken on a feeling of a long standing practice.

What started with ghost stories and the like, soon spread to all types of horror, and fueled by the growing popularity of increasingly violent Hollywood filmsGore became and more and more common theme and showing horror films for the whole month of October in theaters and on TV was standard by the early 1970’s.

Halloween has been increasingly identified with horror/slasher films like John Carpenter's 1972 Halloween starring Jamie Lee Curtis and its sequels including this year's Halloween Ends.

About the same time the first generations of trick or treaters grew up but continued to enjoy the dress-up and parties of Halloween.  It is, year by year, an increasingly popular adult holiday, incorporating many of the features of various world masquerade festivals with macabre twist.

Adult carousing has made Halloween a rival to New Years Eve and St. Patrick's Day for the party-till-you-puke crowd.

Halloween is now the second most widely celebrated holiday in the United States and is an economic powerhouse, generating sales second only to Christmas.  Popular American media have spread the customs of trick or treating and celebrating gore around the world, often supplanting truly ancient celebrations of Halloween in the Celtic countries.

The resurgence of Christian Fundamentalism in the U.S. has led to a counter movement to strip the “Satanic” festival from public schools and the wider community.  Although they get it wrong—there was never any connection between Satanism and Halloween—the Fundies, ironically, at least recognized a religious tradition hiding under the commercial hoopla

Fundamentalist opposition to Halloween might be swimming against the cultural tide, but increasingly schools and some municipalities skittish about the complaints have substituted a bland harvest festival or banned any kind of celebration.

At the same time re-invented traditional paganism like Wicca, one of the most rapidly growing religious movements of the last decades, has striven to recapture the nearly lost significance of the holiday’s roots in Samhain—and sometime invented traditions on flimsy or non-existent evidence.

Modern Wiccans and other neopagans practice a wide variety of largely invented Samhain and Halloween rituals.  By some accounts Wicca is the fastest growing religion in the U.S.

Go thou and celebrate as thou wouldst.   

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Rosa Parks on Halloween —Murfin Verse Again


Rosa Parks' mug shot in Birmingham.  I echoed this frequently cited quote in slightly different wording, in my poem.

Rosa Parks died on October 24, 2005 in Detroit, Michigan at the age of 93.  She is revered as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement for sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give her seat to a white man.  A young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. was selected to lead the long campaign that led to one of the first great victories in for the Civil Rights Movement in the South.

After her death that year, she was widely celebrated including the then unheard of honor for a woman and private citizen who never held high civil or military office of being laid in state in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol.  Tens of thousands filed silently by her flag draped coffin on October 31—Halloween.

Rosa Parks in her elder years in Detroit was much honored as the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement."

I was inspired to write a poem by news coverage of the solemn event. With unwarranted audaciousness, I chose to write in her voice.  I had recently listened to some extended interviews and could clearly hear her soft, breathy tone and gentle Southern accent in my head.  I knew then, and I know now, that there will be some that take great offense—particularly because I have her voice comments about crime and young men in her troubled Detroit neighborhood.  But I had also heard her make similar comments in life.

I have read this work several times and it has appeared in this blog before.  But it seems an apt moment to revisit it.

Tens of thousands waited in long lines to pay their respects to Rosa Parks as the laid in state in the Capital Rotunda on Halloween 2005.

Rosa Parks on Halloween 2005

I didn’t hold truck with Halloween.

I was a good Christian woman.

Ask anyone who ever knew me,

            they will tell you so.


Back in Detroit young fools,

            with pints and pistols

            in their back pockets

            burned the neighborhood

            each Halloween.

Hell Night they called it

            and it was.

Heathen business, I say.


I passed on a few days ago.

Time had whittled me away.

Small as I was to begin with,

            I had no weight left

            to tie me to the earth.


Now I lay in a box on cold marble.

The empty dome of the Capital

            pretends to be heaven above.

A river of faces turns around me,

            gawking, weeping, murmuring.

I see them all.


Maybe those old Druids,

            pagan though they were,

            were right about the air

            between the living and the dead

            being thin this day.


More likely that Sweet Chariot

            has parked somewhere

            and let me linger a while

            just so I could see this

            before swinging low

            to carry me home.


It makes me proud alright.

I was always proud.

Humility before the Lord

            may be a virtue,

            but humility before the master

            was the lash that kept

            Black folks down.

We grew pride as a back bone.


All of this is nice enough.

But let me tell you,

            since I’ve been gone,

            I’ve seen some foolishness

            and heard plenty, too.


They talk all kinds of foolishness

            about that day in Montgomery.

All that falderal about my feet being tired.

It wasn’t my soles that ached.

It was my soul.


It wasn’t any sudden accident either.

No sir, I prayed at the AME church.

I went to the Highland School

            for rabble rousers and trouble makers.

I met with the brothers at the NAACP

            who were a little afraid

            of an uppity woman.


Another thing.

That day was not my whole life.

There were 42 years before

            and fifty more after.

There was plenty of loving and grieving,

            sweat and laughter,

            and always speaking my mind

            very plainly, thank you.


Sure, there were parades.

There were medals and speeches, too.

But there were also long lonely days.


Once, up in Detroit,

            I was beat half to death

            in my own home

            by a wild eyed thug.

He didn’t care if I was

            the Mother of Civil Rights.

He never heard of Dr. King

            or the bus boycott.

All he wanted was my Government money.

            so he could go out

            and hop himself up some more.


That a young Black man

            could do that to an old woman,

            any old woman,

            near broke my heart.

That I could step out my door

            and see copies of him

            lolling on every street corner

            made me mad.


We may have changed the world,

            like they kept saying.

We didn’t change it enough.

We didn’t keep the hope from

            being sucked out of the city.


This business in the Capital   

            is alright, I suppose.

And it was nice enough to be brought

            back to Montgomery, too,

            laid out in the chapel

            of my home church.

But clearly some folks have

            gone out of their minds.


Why, in Houston the other day,

            before a World Series game,

            they had the crowd stand silent

            in my memory.

It was a sea of white faces

            who paid a seamstress’s

            wages for a month for a seat.

It seems the only Black faces

            were on the field

            or roaming the aisles

            selling hot dogs.


And, Lord, the two-faced politicians

            that came out of the woodwork!

The governor of Alabama

            cried crocodile tears

            as if he would not be

            happy to have

            a White Citizen’s Council

            membership card in his wallet

            if it would get him some votes.


Somebody roused George W. from his stupor,

            told him in short easy words

            who I was,

            and shoved him out

            in front of the microphones

            to eulogize me.

He looked uncomfortable and confused.

I understand he had other things

            on his mind.


What these politicians had in mind

            was patting black folks on the head.

“See,” they say, “Mrs. Parks and Dr. King

            took care of everything.

They asked for freedom and we gave it to them

            a long, long time ago.

What more can you ask?

Now stand over there out of the way

            so we can get down to the business   

            of going after real money.”


It plain tires me out.


Little children, Black and white,

            who study me in school,

            do not think the job is over.

Your own bus seat must be won every day.

And while you are at it,

            have the driver change the route.


—Patrick Murfin

Saturday, October 29, 2022

What Bill Mauldin and Willie and Joe Taught Me

Sgt. Bill Mauldin on the job in Italy covering the war from the front lines for Stars and Stripes.  He looked younger than his 22 years.

When I was a boy I was obsessed with the great event of my parentslifetimeWorld War II.  It was hard not to be.  Almost every house I ever visited had at least one framed photo of a handsome young man in uniform proudly displayed.  Sometimes more.  Husbands, brothers, fathers.  Most came home.  Some did not.

The survivors of those photos were still mostly youngish men in the prime of their lives—my father and the fathers of almost all my friends.  They were serious, hard working men.  They were very busy doing things, sometimes big things.  To a man those I knew best, my father and uncles, could hardly be made to talk about their experiences.  If pressed they would say, “Well, I was in Europe for a while.”  Or “I was a Seabee.”  Further details were seldom forthcoming.

They belonged to the Legion or the VFW, but seemed neither super-patriotic nor querulously eager for the next war.  They took comfort in being around other men who had been there, but they distrusted the occasional braggart and blowhard at the bar.  Their contempt for that ilk was summed up years later in a Bill Mauldin cartoon in the Chicago Sun Times showing one of the bellicose Legion leaders of the Vietnam era beginning and ending his World War II service, “folding blankets in Texas.”

For real information on what our dads did in the war, we had to turn to our mothers.  Mine was glad to share her meticulously kept scrap books with photos, postcards, newspaper clipping, maps, V-mail letters, and even un-used ration stamps.  And she dug out the long buried footlocker in the basement chocked full interesting stuff.  I claimed a khaki overseas cap, which for a season or two I wore everyday in lieu of my customary cowboy hat, a web belt, canteen, mess kit, ammo pouches, a gas mask bag, and a helmet liner.  I was outfitted well for the endless games of war the neighborhood boys played in backyards among hedges and window wells.

On Sunday afternoons I was glued to the TV documentaries about the war that were still a staple of the air—the Army’s The Big Picture, Victory at Sea, Silent Service, and most episodes of Walter Cronkites The Twentieth Century.  And then there were the old movies that played on the daily movie matinee show which came on just as I got home from school.  I thought I knew what war was about.

Finding a well-thumbed copy of Mauldin's Up Front was an eye-opener for World War II teen fan boy in Cheyenne,  So was Ernie Pile's collected columns in This is Your War.

But of course, I didn’t know squat.  Until I found in my mother’s bookshelves well-thumbed editions of This is Your War, a collection of columns by the great war correspondent Ernie Pyle and a couple of collections of Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe cartoons for Stars and Stripes.

Both Pyle and Mauldin rose to fame covering the brutal, unglamorous Italian campaign as troops slogged slowly north through the Boot against stubborn German resistance, treacherous mountainous terrain, rubble strewn street fighting, supply shortages, and often incompetent leadership.  So much for Winston Churchills soft underbelly of Europe.”  Fighting there dragged on after it was relegated to a side show and Allied troops, liberated at last from the Normandy beaches, were racing across France far to the north.

Both men talked about the war from the front line perspective of the G.I. dogface—exhausted, bitter, cynical, stripped of all illusions of glory, immune to patriotic exhortations, and suffering as much at the hands of clueless generals and idiot second lieutenants as from the usually unseen Nazis.  Pyle drew the picture with words.  Mauldin just drew the picture.

And remarkably, he did so in the official GI newspaper Stars and Stripes as a sergeant in the Army he chronicled.  Willie and Joe were his creation to represent the lives of the grunts on the ground.  They were unshaven, slovenly, and perpetually exhausted.  They looked in those drawings like old men.  But Mauldin, who was only 22 and looked years younger, pointed out that Willie and Joe were the same age he was.  War did that to them.

The old spit-and-polish brass hated Mauldin and often tried to get him banned from the paper or refused to issue passes to their front line units—where he went anyway, regardless of any stinking passes.  General George Patton called him to his headquarters and threatened to have him arrested for disturbing moraleDwight Eisenhower had to personally intercede with orders to leave Mauldin alone.  He thought the comics helped his men “let off steam.”

Stuff like this jab a Old Blood and Guts got Mauldin personally called on the carpet by George Patton.  General Eisenhower had to personally intervene to keep him out of trouble and in print.

Mauldin was born on October 29, 1921 in Mountain Park, New Mexico.  His family was no stranger to the military.  His grandfather was a cavalry scout in the campaigns against the Apache.  His father was an artilleryman in World War I.

The family moved to Phoenix, Arizona where Mauldin finished high school and became interested in art.  He enlisted in the Arizona National Guard, but was able to go to Illinois where he attended classes at Ruth VanSickle Fords Chicago Academy of Fine Art.

He never completed his studies.  He was called up from the Guard to active duty in 1940.  He was assigned to the 45th Division, the first all-Guard unit activated prior to Americas entry into the war and made up units from New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma including many Native Americans.

Mauldin was a good soldier despite his almost childish appearance.  He advanced to the rank of sergeant quickly and began contributing cartoons to the Division newspaper.  While still training stateside he created Willie and Joe, based on his best friend and himself.  When the unit deployed overseas he was assigned to the Division Press Office.  He did not consider that to be behind the lines duty.

When the Division landed in Sicily in July of 1943 for its first combat operations, Mauldin was right there with the front line infantry.  He stayed there.  He was with them again on September 10 when the Division landed at Agropoli and Paestum, the southernmost beachheads of the Salerno campaign.  Thus began the long, grinding inch-by-inch slog up the length of the Italian Boot.

Mauldin’s cartoons were being reprinted in Stars and Stripes and in February 1944 he was transferred to the Army newspaper, issued a Jeep and given nearly a carte blanche to cover the front as he thought best.  His reputation among GIs was high and everywhere he went they welcomed him even if officers were usually mortified.  Recognition that he often took the same risks as infantrymen won him credibility, especially after he was wounded by mortar fire while visiting a machine gun crew near Monte Cassino.

                           Bogged down hopelessly in Italy, Willie and Joe were a tad cynical about all of the glory of D-Day.

He returned to the front and his drawings, which were now also being circulated by the Army to civilian papers in the States.  The Brass felt that the cartoons would make clear to the public the realities of the war and explain the slow pace of advance in Italy to a public which expected quick victories.

Mauldin was awarded the Legion of Merit, an award usually given to field grade officers in combat operations.  At the end of European operations, Mauldin wanted to have Willie and Joe killed on the last day of combat, a final thumb of the nose to the futility of war.  The horrified Brass quickly nixed that idea.

Back in the States and out of the service, Mauldin found himself something of a celebrity.  He had even made the cover of TimeHe won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945.  His first book Up Front, one of the books I purloined from my mother’s selves, was a best seller.  It contained many of the best Willie and Joe cartoons along with no-holds-barred essays that stripped all glory from war.

A defiant liberal, Mauldin found it difficult to fit into an America in the throes of Red Scare paranoia and hardening conservatism.  His attempts to establish a career as an editorial cartoonist were stymied as newspapers shied away from controversial content especially when he echoed the views of the American Civil Liberties Union and its opposition to witch hunts, blacklists, and attacks on individuals for their political opinions.

Willie and Joe had a hard time adjusting to civilian life back home.  Work was hard to find, their relationships broken or strained, and uncomfortable in the emerging post-war red scare.  In this panel Mauldin took a swipe at hardening racial and religious attitudes.  

He tried to transition Willie and Joe to civilian life and chronicled the hard times they had fitting in.  The public wasn’t interested.

Discouraged, Mauldin turned to illustrating magazine articles and books.  He even tried his hand at acting, appearing with another youthful looking veteran, Audie Murphy in the Civil War film, The Red Badge of Courage.

Mauldin starred with another young vet, Audie Murphy who was the most decorated soldier of World War II, in John Huston's adaptation of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage.

Mauldin also struggled with his personal life.  He married three times and fathered eight children.

In 1956 at the height of the Cold War Mauldin ran for Congress in a rural Upstate New York District as a peace Democrat.  He campaigned hard and was personally well received by local farmers—until his foreign policy positions failed to match to staunch conservatism of the district.

Liberal Bill Mauldin was not a good fit for the conservative, anti-Communist Up State New York Congressional District in his 1948 run for Congress.

In 1958 he finally got steady work as staff editorial cartoonist for the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch and the national syndication that went with it.  Ironically, Mauldin’s still struggling career got a boost when he won a second Pulitzer Prize 1n 1959 for a cartoon that was acceptable to the anti-Communist crowd.  It pictured Boris Pasternak, author of Dr Zhivago in a Soviet Gulag asking a fellow inmate, “I won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What was your crime?”  In fact, the cartoon was in line with Mauldin’s consistent defense of the rights of free speech and civil liberties.

Mauldin moved in 1962 to the Chicago Sun-Times, Marshal Fields liberal challenger to Col. Robert McCormicks hyper-conservative Chicago Tribune.  It gave him a supportive home for outstanding political cartooning for the rest of his career.  Mauldin’s editorial page panel was one of the big reasons I became a dedicated reader of that paper for years.

Among his famous Sun-Times cartoons is the picture of Lincoln seated in the Lincoln Memorial burring his face in his hands the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy—which inexplicably failed to win a third Pulitzer.    He was a bitter opponent of the Vietnam War and supporter of anti-war protestors.  His cartoons during and after the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 featured Mayor Richard J. Dailey as a Keystone Kop, which made Hizonor apoplectic.

Mauldin's depiction of Mayor Daley as a Keystone cop during and after the 1968 Democratic National Convention enraged undisputed Boss of Chicago politics.  He also took swipes at the Chicago press and media, including his own Sun-Times, for their often fawning coverage of Hizzoner as the master of the "city that works."

Mauldin retired in 1991.  He was missed.  He occasionally contributed a cartoon and did several interviews.  He entertained old friends and admirers.

But his fine, sharp mind was fading.  Suffering from Alzheimers Disease Mauldin was badly scalded in bathtub accident and died in great pain in Newport Beach, California on January 11, 2002.  He was buried with so many of his fallen comrades at Arlington National Cemetery.

Willie and Joe endure.